What the Hell Is That? A Hummingbird Moth

While sitting in front of the Purple Palace (also known as my residence) on Sunday afternoon I saw a strange and wonderful creature buzzing amongst the hostas. It was a hummingbird moth, a species I’d seen just twice before on prairie hikes in northwest Iowa. A friend was visiting with me on the porch at the time and as I said, “Oh my god!” he exclaimed, “What the hell is that?” I was so pleased to see the moth in my yard–and during moth week no less!-that I had a smile on my face for the rest of the day.

Hummingbird moths, also known as hawk moths or sphinx moths, feed similarly to hummingbirds. Upon seeing one amongst your hostas you might just think it was a hummingbird, but hopefully you would notice the distinctive striping on the batting wings. Most species of hummingbird moths are active at dusk, but the white-lined sphnix (Hyles lineata) that is common in Iowa is just as likely to be seen during the day. This is a brown moth with white and rose stripes whose wingspan measures two to three inches. While observing the sphinx in your yard you could easily be fooled into thinking it was a hummigbird as it flits from one flower to another, but the coloring and antenna would definitely give it away to the observant admirer.

Hyles lineata, Flickr Creative Commons user abd-ashi

Hyles lineata, Flickr Creative Commons user abd-ashi

As I mentioned earlier in this post, Moth Week runs from July 19-27 this year and I would encourage all of you to check out their website. There might be a nighttime moth event happening near you. If not, it’s a great time to educate yourself on an often misunderstood insect. As a child I remember being afraid of moths and running away from them when they flew towards me. As I get older I become increasingly interested in insects, especially moths. I find them to be beautifully creepy, like butterflies gone awry. Learn more about moths and practice some citizen science by following the steps below: 

  1. Check out Butterflies & Moths’ website to see what species of moths occur near you. I know for the United States you can even narrow this down my county. They provide photographs, descriptions, taxonomy and more to help you identify your common moths.
  2. Go to the National Moth Week website to see if there is an event happening near you. If there isn’t, plan to stay out at dusk one night this week and see if you can find any moths right in your backyard. Follow their mothing guidelines to help you get some good sightings!
  3. Take photos if you can and share your sightings of moths (and other insects!) on BugGuide. This is also a great resource for identifying a moth or other insect you cant find on your region’s list.

Just last week I saw a moth sitting underneath my garage keypad while I was getting my bike out. It was early in the morning and think the moth was probably drawn to my garage light the night before. I fairly certain the moth is a Hollow-spotted Angle, which is common in Iowa. I’m sharing my photo below–and I would love to hear about your backyard moths in the comments!

Zale lunata, Photo credit Terra Ash Bruxvoort

Hollow-spotted Angle, Photo credit Terra Ash Bruxvoort

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4 thoughts on “What the Hell Is That? A Hummingbird Moth

  1. Saw some hummingbird moths just a few weeks ago. Not as thrilling (to me!) as seeing an actual hummingbird but comes pretty darn close. Good post. Love the photos!

  2. Moths are not something I’ve investigated too much, though I’ve “raised” some butterflies from cocoons a couple of times.
    I’m not living in my house right now in Orange City, renting it out while I live in shabby downtown Orlando. A couple years ago though we leased a butterfly that not only comes back every year, but has spawned somewhat of a revolution in my backyard; the Pipevine Butterfly.
    Reading your article I’m going to look into the moths. Excited by what I might find; at least once I get back to Orange City.

  3. I live in northwestern Colorado, ski country, and hummingbird moths visit us every year, sometimes dashing in and out and other times lingering for a bit. They particularly seem attracted to the bee balm we plant for bees, hummingbirds, and, we’ve learned, hummingbird moths. I loved this post and its photographs.

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